October 19, 2017

iMonk Classic: Rebaptism – What Is It?

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From September 2008

I’m going to write about rebaptism, an issue that has deeply affected and weakened my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, and an issue that touches every Christian communion I am aware of in some way.

Rebaptism is a very emotional issue. One reason we don’t talk about it is how quickly it becomes an occasion for disagreement and division. I have seen many tears and heard many angry words over this subject. Just thinking about it and remembering what I have experienced has brought strong emotions back to me, even as I wrote.

Baptism stands at the entrance to the Christian experience. Christians may differ on exactly where that doorway occurs in relation to faith or forgiveness, and they may quibble about how directly that doorway leads into full communion in the church, but all Christians place baptism at the beginning of the Christian life, and assume that those who walk through it are, in some way, a part of the visible people of God.

In baptism, all Christians believe divine promises are heard. All Christians believe that baptism is, in various and very diverse ways, related to faith. All Christians believe that when the Church baptizes, it speaks a word from God to the one baptized, and a word to all Christians and all other persons who know the one baptized.

Amidst all the diverse and differing beliefs regarding baptism, there is a great common belief: This person is a part of God’s people, and is the recipient of God’s great promises in the Gospel.

I say all of this to make one point: For anyone to reject baptism- either their own or another’s- is a powerful and serious statement. It is powerfully divisive.

To reject one’s own baptism is to say something deeply revealing about what one believes about baptism, but more importantly, it is to say something revealing regarding the Gospel itself.

Rebaptism and the rejection of baptism that precedes it are full of ironies.

For example, my own Southern Baptist tradition does not believe in baptismal regeneration nor in the efficacy of baptism being tied to a particular congregation, yet Southern Baptists reject the baptisms of Roman Catholics- whether as adult believers or as infants- while the Roman Catholic church, which does believe the waters of baptism remove sin and that their church is the one and only true church, accepts the baptisms of Southern Baptists as valid.

It is Roman Catholics and most mainline Protestants who will refuse to rebaptize, while evangelicals often will rebaptize the same person multiple times over a period of a few years. Rebaptism by request for sentimental reasons- “My wife is being baptized and I want to be rebaptized with her”- is now commonplace.

Evangelicals will justify their own rebaptisms glibly, as if nothing were at stake at all in saying “I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn’t know what I was doing.” In fact, such a statement, while obviously meaningful as a description of an individual’s journey, has deep implications for the church and the Gospel.

In my own tradition, churches frequently refuse to accept other evangelicals baptized on their profession of faith, including other Baptists, without rebaptism. Such a posture has enormous implications regarding baptism, the Gospel and the church.

Those being rebaptized are seldom asked about their previous baptism, discipleship or Christian experience. Those who baptized and received them as Christians are left to assume they were wrong.

But most evangelicals seem clueless as to the seriousness of the issue of rebaptism. Submerged in the clamor for church growth, baptism has become a generator of statistics, and in that role rebaptism is seen as a blessing.

Only a few critics have the courage to point out that many “growing, evangelistic” churches are baptizing a percentage of their own members 2 and 3 times, while they are rebaptizing other Christians and acting as if these are conversions when they are not.

What does rebaptism look like among evangelicals today?

It looks like this:

A growing church requires anyone not immersed in a Southern Baptist Church to be rebaptized.

An evangelistic crusade at a church-related college results in over 200 decisions. Almost 2/3rds initially indicate that they are not Christians. Many will be rebaptized, even though they came to a Christian school after professing faith in Christ at their home churches for years. A local church will rebaptize many of these students who were baptized in their home churches.

After a revival, several of the deacons of a Baptist church- and the pastor’s wife and children- are rebaptized. The deacons continue serving as deacons.

A Baptist woman marries a Pentecostal man. The pastor who marries them says it would be a good idea of the man were rebaptized.

A woman is saved in a Baptist church. Her husband and children all ask to be rebaptized with her.

The entire youth group returns from summer camp and the youth minister asks the pastor that all the students be rebaptized. These are all the children of church leaders, and all were baptized in the past. The pastor baptizes them all at the next worship service.

A young adult woman asks her pastor to rebaptize her because, after a recent Beth Moore conference, she’s much more serious about her faith and wants to say that she’s starting over as a Christian.

A pastor tells the congregation that he is rebaptizing a man because, the man “just wants to be sure” that he’s a Christian.

A girl at a Christian school is rebaptized for the 4th time in 2 years. A teacher asks the pastor why, and he says “I don’t want to discourage her in her walk with Christ.”

A woman tells her pastor that she has not been living as a Christian the past few years, and now she wants to be resaved and rebaptized.

A man immersed in believer’s baptism in a Presbyterian church is told that in order to join a Baptist church he’s visiting, he must be rebaptized because Presbyterians believe in infant baptism.

There could be a hundred more examples. These are sufficient to get us started.

This is what rebaptism looks like. In my next post, I’ll look at where rebaptism comes from in evangelical belief, and what rebaptism has done to the Christians and churches where it is routinely practiced.

[Note: I know that many of my readers have probably been rebaptized. I’m not trying to start an argument with you. I am sure some of the pastors reading this post have rebaptized in cases where it seemed their best judgment to do so. I am not questioning your judgment. I am simply addressing a topic that I believe is a serious problem, and one that is rarely ever discussed.]

Comments

  1. Marcus Johnson says:

    I have a good friend who was struggling for a while to find a career that was a good match for him. He went to college, and at least once a year for six years, he changed his major or a minor. The reason? Usually, it had something to do with an interesting or boring professor or class, or an article he read off of Yahoo! Eventually, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree, then wound up taking a couple of online courses in a MA in Secondary Education before he dropped out of the program and ended up working retail. I’m not sure if he’s happy now, but I have to wonder if all that jumping around from career track to career track did some permanent damage to his college/academic experience.

    Looking over Spencer’s post, I’m wondering if my friend’s story might be applicable here. What have we lost from the concept of baptism, that has led us to the point where we run folks through the baptism pool for sentimental reasons, for church policy reasons, and on and on? Is it right to baptize people just because they ask, or should we say, “No, the first time was enough. Let’s see if there are other ways for you to deepen your relationship with God.”?

    I’m also wondering if, maybe, the Church has been unduly influenced by the outside world. Looking at these mini-stories of baptism, I think I would find a Kardashian getting a suntan more of a significant event than any of these folks getting baptized. The same thought, which basically comes down to, “Well, you messed up before, so let’s do it again, and again, and again,” seems to also apply to marriage. But that’s another post for another forum.

    Okay, enough rambling. Thoughts?

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I know credobaptism is the Baptists’ tribal identifier — it’s right there in their name, duh — but dunking over and over for any reason? Sometimes to the point of NOT recognizing any baptism not personally done in their church as valid?

    • “I was baptized when I was 12, but I didn’t know what I was doing.”

      This hews very close to the traditional Baptist complaint about pedobaptism. Perhaps “juveno-baptism” should be viewed with suspicion as well…?

  3. Baptism is like physical birth….it can only happen once, and means that you have entered into this world, this family, and you will be human in this world until you die.

    I think that re-baptism is a poor attempt at a symbol of repentence or recommittment…

  4. In the years subsequent to my own re-baptism, I’ve come to think of my original (infant) baptism as a promise to be fulfilled rather than an empty ritual to be cleansed over by my own consent and newfound zeal.

    • I feel the same way about my own.
      If I had known then what I know now I wouldn’t have agreed to be rebaptized.

  5. Luther likened re-baptism to a marriage that has fallen on hard times and then the couple gets back together. They do not need to be remarried, they insetad pick up where they left off. He wrote some letters ‘Concerning Rebaptism’ that have been freshly translated.

    http://www.newreformationpress.com/books/did-my-baptism-count.html

    • Richard Hershberger says:

      Of course renewal of marriage vows is a popular practice. My response to it is that I was under the impression my marriage vows were permanent. Apparently some people regard them like tetanus shots, requiring periodic boosters.

      • I was going to mention this earlier as well…..renewal of vows is sweet and moving, but it is NOT a wedding. The marriage already exists and is valid, so the renewal is reaffirmation of the permanent nature of the vows from five or fity years ago.

        So it is with repeating a baptism….nice, but essentially meaningless.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      While my church (RCC) only baptizes once, we DO “renew” our Baptismal Promises every Easter Vigil and at every baptism; the priest doing the baptizing leads the entire congregation in reciting the baptismal vows in unison with the catechumen(s) (for credobaptism) or parents & godparents (for paedobaptism).

  6. Randy Thompson says:

    I appreciate Michael Spencer’s article on re-baptism, especially since I was very confused about this when I was a teenager. I remember wondering if the baptism I remembered (which, I later discovered, was a re-baptism itself) counted or not, since I felt I had really become a disciple some years later. And, I could have served as one of Spencer’s examples, going off and getting baptized yet again by a goodhearted Pentecostal pastor who was, I’m sure, just trying to be spiritually helpful.

    Decades later, I came to have the same concerns as the ones expressed here. I will not re-baptize someone.

    However, I am willing to re-enact someone’s baptism, provided that we make clear that what we’re doing isn’t a (real) baptism but a re-enactment. It’s like a couple who have been married for decades reaffirming their wedding vows.

    I came up with this idea on my own, but later discovered that I was not the originator of it. In Michael Green’s great book on baptism, he cites a liturgy of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand for re-enacting baptisms. I believe Green’s book is simply called “Baptism,” but I’m not sure and I don’t have it handy.

  7. That article could be written about several Churches of Christ as well. I was baptized in a Baptist church at a very young age (either six or eight, I am not sure), and then “rebaptized” in a Church of Christ at 18. I consider my COC baptism to be my “true” baptism because I honestly don’t think I understood the significance of baptism at the young age when I was first baptized.

    Many people in the branch of the COC that I come from were rebaptized because the COC didn’t consider their previous baptisms to be valid. And some of those rebaptisms were of people who came from the COC!

  8. Does taking a bath(baptism) give you a clean heart and a right spirit(PS 51:10)? God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.John 4:24

    • Wanda, the scriptures say that baptism is more than just a ‘bath.’

      Ephesians 5:26
      so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,

      Acts 22:16
      Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’

      Romans 6:4
      Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

      1 Peter 3:21
      Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you— not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Watsamatta, Wanda? Too Gnostically SPIRITUAL(TM) for something as icky and Physical as getting dunked, poured, or sprinkled? Especially since said “sacred bathing/washing” has been THE rite of Christian initiation since the beginning?

    • Marcus Johnson says:

      I’m not sure how John 4:24 is the rebuttal to the question of re-baptism. I think you’re making the connection that re-baptism is not an act of worship in spirit and truth. Not that I have a problem with the premise, but the comment seems to be missing about ten links in logic from re-baptism to invalid worship.

  9. I don’t think of baptism as the beginning of my Christian life. I was baptized as an infant in the RC Church. At the age of 24 I met the Lord Jesus Christ – the living Christ and my life changed profoundly. I met and married my husband who had also been baptized as an infant. Through my sharing Scripture with him and other influences he also met the Lord Jesus as his own. He immediately wanted to be baptized by immersion. We had a friend who was a pastor who did baptize him. But not me as I did not request it. When you become a new Christian you become a “project” for people. So I was being given a looooonnnnnggg list of things I should or should not do now that I was a Christian. You know, no smoking, drinking. dancing ( none of which I did anyway), I was even told I shouldn’t purchase a Sunday newspaper!! Anyway baptism by immersion was just got lost on that list. Ten years later I wanted to be baptized for very personal reasons. I was and it meant so much to me and still does.

    Now that I am in a liturgical church I have witnessed infant baptisms and listened to the pastor’s words about it being the beginning of a journey. I’m okay with that.

  10. One of the many secrets of the SBC is that for all the hyperbole on evangelism, almost all the baptism numbers are really re-baptisms. I know many who have been “baptized” 3-4 times in the SBC, each time counted again by the convention.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Like how L Ron Hubbard novels are bought by Scientologists, turned in at the Orgs, shipped back to the Scientology-owned publisher, and resold five or six times to get the sales numbers to get on the Best-Seller lists?

  11. Richard Hershberger says:

    This piece was a real eye-opener to me when Michael first posted it. I had been vaguely aware of “rebaptism” and had assumed it was churches which insist on adult baptism rebaptizing persons who had been baptized as infants. This raises a whole host of issues, but there is an internal logic to it. I can also understand a church insisting on a do-over for new members. This is even more problematic, but falls within the logic of strict fundamentalism, with a grocery list of doctrinal items to argue over with the church down the block they split from a few years back. But rebaptism within a single church strongly suggests that the church has no clear concept of what baptism is. I have seen the suggestion that this is also a response to the general lack of ritual in such churches. Ritual fills a human need. If there is only one ritual available, then it will be dragged in to fill the gap. Perhaps if they held communion more often this would be less of a problem.

    • Exactly….there are other sacraments like the Eucharist, Reconciliation (confession) and Confirmation for a very good reason.

  12. Though this post is about baptism it talks about how baptism removes sin. Not to change the thread but I read in the news that tornados hit Brooklyn and Queens today. I’m also wondering if John Piper is going to shoot his wad in linking these tornadoes to some sin.

    Oh well if that’s the case people can just get re-baptized! 😀

  13. If God is the One who actually does the baptizing(and He is)…then one time will do perfectly well.

  14. I was baptized in a Baptist church when I was 9 or 10 and just a few years later I bailed on the whole thing. I surrendered my life back to Christ in late 2007 and have spent the last 5 years re-learning through eyes of grace what I was legalisitcally fed in my childhood. I’ve got issues that run deep and some I am not aware of until a certain something is spoken and off I go on a tangent of fear that, yet again, I’m not made for this life so forget it! I recall feeling incredible guilt because I was still smoking (I have since quit) and could hear in my head the condescending, critical and judgemental voices, “You’re not a Christian! You smoke!” Or, “If you were serious about giving your life to Christ you wouldn’t be smoking.” Ugh.

    A few months back I started wondering if I should be baptized again, as this post said, before I didn’t know a thing but now I’m serious. I asked my dad, a pastor and a serious stumbling block for my faith for decades, to do it somewhere in his town or mine, in a lake (his church does not have the space for baptism’s so they do it in a public lake.) knowing how much it would mean to me for him to do it. I asked my husband to walk out with me (we are not on the same journey) because I’m very afraid of water. And I wanted to do it around the end of August or early September, kind of marking the “5 year mark” of this new journey in Christ. Well, life is full, I have a grandchild on the way and being in different towns 75 miles apart it hasn’t happened.

    I share ALL that to say that this post comforts me. Thank you!

  15. None of us are really ‘serious’, when it comes to the life of faith. We are sidetracked so easily. And what can we say about our ‘pure motives’ in all of it?

    God is the only One who is serious. He showed that seriousness on the cross. And for each one of us individually, in our baptisms, which is His concrete, tangible, way of bringing the cross to bear in each of our lives.

    It’s really an awesome and a liberating thing. I do believe that is why Jesus commanded that we be baptized, and to baptize. For assurance, and freedom.

  16. Couldn’t some of these people be re-chrismated instead? Equally solemn, and it carries fewer theological red flags.

  17. We call it re-pentance…and we do it every day.

  18. Baptism is not a ritual that gets you into heaven. Baptism to me is about cleansing whether you do ever do it once or many times, it is about you in the presence of God .

  19. I consider three important places in my life where Jesus and his grace came to me in successively deeper and more powerful ways — at the ages of 7, 19 and 45. When telling the tale of my spiritual journey I refer to these as my first, second and third conversions. With the second two it is not that I was not a christian until that moment. Rather those experiences of grace were so earth shaking for me that they created a dramatic change of direction and focus for me. In each case that gospel of Jesus Christ came to me, destroyed me and remade me again.

    I have been baptized only once. I consider my latter conversions to be God’s continuing outworking in my life of that first baptism. Through all my life God has been working. Had I been baptized as an infant I believe I would see it the same way — God has been working in my life from the moment the priest poured water over my head — I just didn’t know it until I experience conversion.

    Baptism — like sanctification — is God’s work. Baptism, conversion, sanctification and salvation are all part of the same continuum — but Baptism is a unique sacramental moment. If you need re-dedication — take communion.

  20. I’ve experienced the opposite problem. After my conversion it took four churches a total of two years to baptize me the first (and only) time.

    • Methinks this might be another arm of the same thing- as re-baptism devalues baptism as something that’s effective, some are prone to doing it over and over again, but the door is also opened to treating baptism as if it’s not important at all because “we have Jesus in our hearts” or some such. The privelige is given to some sort of inner transformation, with the assumption that baptism is “merely outward” and therefore not spiritual enough, or open to superstition, thus if people don’t actually get baptized at all, what does it matter?

      Same reason many churches think nothing of practicing the Lord’s Supper once a quarter, and even then qualifying it as if it’s meaningless.

  21. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    I just need to point out that neither Quakers nor the Salvation Army practices water baptism.

  22. Josh S Blake says:

    I look at re-baptism in the same light as re-circumcision, unnecessary. It’s just how I view it. I’m not even sure that it is theologically sound. And I’m not trying to press this belief on anyone. I can’t even remember where this thought came from. But that has been my view for years. Let me know how wrong (or right) I am. I obviously need to know more than I do now.

  23. I’ve been baptized twice: once at age nine in a Southern Baptist Church and again twenty years later in a non-denom fellowship.
    And while I agree that rebaptisms can often be unnecessary and can even trivialize the sacrament itself — I did feel a very strong conviction to get dunked again and had some long talks with a pastor before he agreed to do it. My conviction stemmed from the depth of sin and depravity to which I had descended and the degree to which I had denounced the faith of my youth. I relate strongly with Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son — particularly with the returning son’s feeling that he scarcely deserved to clean toilets in his Father’s house. My Father had welcomed me with open arms and killed the fatted calf — but, in a way, I still felt like a traitor, and I felt like I needed to be washed from about a decade of accumulated filth. I also wanted to submit to baptism as a public gift to the One who forgave and redeemed me when I had nearly given up hope on myself.
    And while it may not fit into some people’s theology, that rebaptism really did mark a time of rebirth in my life, and it marks the place in my life’s journey where I rediscovered the road of faith after years as a lost sheep.

  24. I’ve re-baptized a number of professed christian women in the prison system (most of the time just before they are released) after working with them for a significant amount of time. I’m not convinced it’s always necessary. But for most, they are scared about what waits for them outside and, for them, re-baptism is making a serious commitment to be more dedicated to follow Jesus. But, I don’t think re-baptizing is the best solution.

    There are a few studies online (if anyone is really interested, that is) about lower recidivism rates when a former inmate connects with a church. It would be helpful if there were more churches that accepted these severely broken women and all their messiness as they baby-stepped their way to maturity. Until then, if the ladies I work with feel a calling from God in their heart that going through baptism again will give them courage, fortitude to stay the course and hope, love in our Lord, I’ll continue to re-dunk.

    PS. I agree that there are rituals, such as other sacraments, that would fulfill the need to re-commit. I work with a wide spectrum of faith based belief systems, so other sacraments are usually not an option. And, it’s rather a moot point if they can’t find even minimal fellowship within a body of believers. I’m open to suggestions :0)

  25. I wonder whether now, with their new-found affinity for Catholic Christians who they’ve worked with on the the issue of abortion, people in the SBC and other baptist churches might have cause to rethink their traditional non-recognition of infant baptism. As someone who took the long way around from being baptized as an infant in an RC church, and then re-baptized twice out in the evangelical wilderness during at time when folks were not so tolerant as they are now, I’m glad that when it came time to join the UMC congregation we now attend my wife and I presented our young children for infant baptism. Many years later they still had their turn to personally acknowledge their faith in Christ through Confirmation, which I think was just as meaningful for them as any believer’s baptism would have been.

  26. i’m particularly stuck by the number of people who say something to the effect of: “my baptism as an infant didn’t count; i didn’t make that decision. now i really have faith. i need to do this to show everyone i really believe.”

    isn’t the efficacy of the infant baptism proved by the continued, or renewed, faith of the individual? that’s what i cannot comprehend in re-baptism. so you’re original baptism didn’t work, yet somehow you came to a realization that there is a God and you can have a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ? hmmmm.

    • It was all too common back in the 1970’s when many of us came into what became evangelicalism (many churches wouldn’t call themselves evangelical back then) that disparaging your former faith tradition, especially if it was Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant, was part of your rite of passage. There was a lot of bad theology floating around, and an anti-traditionalism that itself was a tradition. While many preached a belief in a universal, albeit hidden, church, their rejection of baptisms performed outside their own tradition (or even their own local congregation), belied the fact that they practiced something else.

  27. “One Lord, one faith, ONE BAPTISM!” Doesn’t the very word “re-baptize” contradict this verse?

    I sometimes wonder if, in the face of falling SBC denominational baptismal statistics, some SB pastors readily redunk previously credo-baptized believers for any and every reason & excuse in order to pad their annual reports. I do recall some SB evangelists in “church revivals” some years back who intentionally manipulated believers into doubting their salvation experience so that they would “come forward” to repent and “sincerely accept Christ”. Sometimes half of the church membership would do so. These would all automatically become “candidates for baptism”. Naturally the evangelist would count all these decisions as new “professions of faith” as he touted his prowess in “saving souls” along the revivalist circuit. Oh, the deception of statistics! Kyrie eleison!